I have to make a confession to you all. I don’t think I’ve ever really understood Palm Sunday. Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy Palm Sunday. Ever since my youth, it was one of the Sundays I really looked forward to. As here at St. Peter’s it was a Sunday of celebration. We gathered together…I would usually be clad in the Easter dress of the previous year, looking forward to a morning of light learning or reenactment of Jesus entering into Jerusalem. One of the kids would beg to be the donkey and another kid would awkwardly clammer on top acting out the part of Jesus. We would have an array of palms…. There would be songs of triumph and a lot of special music featuring the word “Hosanna.” Fun fact: if you ever wondered what “Hosanna” means it’s from the Hebrew. The noun would be Savior. The verb would be “Save us.” As a youth I didn’t care about the grammar, just as long as I could scream at the top of our lungs “Hosanna to the Lord!” having no clue what we were saying, but we got to yell in church, so that was fun. And for the hyperactive in the congregation (like myself) it was a Sunday where we got to move around and be involved rather than sitting quietly in the pew.
As I said before, I really enjoy Palm Sunday. I still do. And all these pieces of my childhood youth are still true. It’s good to celebrate our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem because it was a pivotal part of the story of our salvation. It’s good to praise God. It’s good to involve youth in worship whenever possible. But I don’t think I ever really understood Palm Sunday. I’ve often hear the main message of Palm Sunday being the following: the crowds were happy to see Jesus who was like a king, but he was so humble that he rode through the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey. The message of the day that stuck with me was this: Jesus is a humble savior and king. Will you be humble like Jesus?
And truly this question has some merit, but it’s not what Palm Sunday was all about. So what is this day all about? It starts with this question: Did you know that there were two triumphal entries into Jerusalem that day?
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north.
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. This imperial march was a familiar site to the community. The Governor and his soldiers weren’t there to worship or be empathetic to their subjects. They were in the city in case of trouble. There often was, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier Empire.
Pilate’s procession lifted up might and power, affluence and privilege, oppression and domination. Jesus’ procession: (choosing a young donkey rather than a mighty steed, surrounded by the impoverished rather than armed troops, lifting the lowly up rather than stomping on the oppressed) Jesus deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem in a humble manner not simply to be humble, but to show that God’s kingdom is opposite of the kingdoms of the world.
Friends, this isn’t a history lesson. The message of Palm Sunday centers on this question: “which procession will you be part of?”
Each and everyone of us will cry “Hosanna” at one time or another in our life. Hosanna (hôšî‘â-nā’), “Save us! Rescue us!” How many folks were crying to the empire that day “Save us! Help us!” and how many were crying to Jesus that day “Save us! Help us!” In our own lives, when do we turn to the kingdoms of this world for saving and when do we turn to king Jesus?
Which procession will you be a part of? One leads to power and might, domination and oppression. One leads to humility and service, suffering, death….and new life.
In this place, surrounded by palm fronds and happy children it’s easy for me to join the procession following Jesus…but out in the world…it may be harder. This week we’ll remember just how difficult it may be to be faithful to King Jesus when it’s so easy to be faithful to other kings and empires in the world. So friends, walk the journey of his disciples. Commune with him in the Upper Room. Pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Watch in shock and awe as he willingly faces the kingdoms of this world and takes our place in death. As the worship continues through this week, may you ask yourself, which procession are you a part of?